Spurt City

The ultra-violent Sin City strikes me as a template for one strong niche within new media, and helps explain the relative commercial success of Web comics — and therein may lie some lessons for other content creators.

If you’ve missed the hype, Sin City is a film based on the comic visions of Frank Miller. Sin City is not so much a film as a passive video game projected onto the big screen. It is 126-minutes of gratuitous violence, glorified by association with sex and rendered horribly graphic with spurting blood and flesh smashed into jello. Two thoughts went through my mind as I watched: when will it end, and how many times will my teenaged sons see it?

Of course the movie wasn’t made for 50-year-olds like me. It is instead an outgrowth of the comic culture that flourishes on the Web for some very important reasons — because comics speak to adolescent-minded; because adolescents have disposable income; because the Web is the ideal way to disseminate short bursts of visual information; and because niche audiences can easily and privately find content that others would find extreme — until this extreme content breaks into the mainstream ala Sin City.

I think comics are one of the most successful genres in amateur Web publishing. A few weeks ago Paid Content pointed to the essay “Money Matters and the Modern Webcomic” by T Campbell, a practitioner of the comic art and editor of the Web site Graphic Smash.

Campbell recounts how Randy Milholland, creator of the Web comic Something Positive ranted “I FUCKING HATE MY JOB! I work in Medicaid billing so I bill poor people.” Millholland promised his readers that if each of them forked over three or four bucks per reader he could quit his job. “I’d be your bitch for a year,” he promised.

About $22,000 in donations later, Millholland made good his pledge. Campbell details other examples in the same essay which is, itself, only the most recent installment of the nine-part History of Webcomics.

So what makes Web comics particularly attractive? They are multi-media. The artwork makes them distinctive in a way that is very difficult to do for the most clever writer of prose. And they are not bandwith hogs like other multimedia, such as online video. What an ideal micro sale for a Web-enabled cell phone or PDA, such as I mentioned last week. I can imagine a whole new genre of pay-per-spurt entertainments, because Web comics can take advantage of darkness and crudity to create the allure of the forbidden — a powerful marketing tactic when aimed at today’s cash-carrying teens.

Logic tells that Web comics and extreme violence of the Sin City stripe are the shape of things to come. The father in me bemoans it. I recall seeing Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange when I was in high school. It left such a powerful impression that I don’t think I ever saw it again. The film I saw in 1972 was slightly edited. The Film Site review says “Kubrick replaced about 30 seconds of footage to get an R-rating, as opposed to the X-rating” he would otherwise have gotten. It adds that, “Because of the copy-cat violence that the film was blamed for, Kubrick withdrew it from circulation in Britain about a year after its release.” The Wikipedia entry on the movie notes that it was based on a book of the same name by author Anthony Burgess. “(The) book was inspired by an event in 1944, when Burgess’ pregnant wife Lynn was robbed
and beaten by four U.S. GI deserters in a London street, and suffered a miscarriage and
chronic gynaecological problems,” according to Wikipedia.

In the climax scene from Clockwork Orange young protagonist Malcolm McDowell is cured of his thuggery by therapists forcing him to view images of ultraviolence. Fast forward 30 plus years, and we’re building an industry to sell kids those same sorts of images.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media